Levi’s to 'supplement' human models with AI models

The Dutch firm claims to be 90% faster than photoshoots, thanks to its ability to create an AI-based model in around five minutes. 
Maia Mulko
Stock photo: Levi´s clothing store at Times Square, New York City.
Stock photo: Levi´s clothing store at Times Square, New York City.


Clothing firm Levi Strauss & Co, also known as Levi’s, has recently announced that it will team up with an AI company to “supplement” human models with AI-generated models.

The company, Lalaland, is based in Amsterdam and introduces itself as an AI-powered “digital model studio” that uses AI to build “human-like avatars.” Lalaland’s clients can fully customize these avatars by changing their hairstyle, skin color, body shape, etc., and by adding their own 3D garments to digital models, which allows clothing manufacturers to showcase their designs for a very low cost.

The Dutch firm claims to be 90% faster than photoshoots, thanks to its ability to create an AI-based model in around five minutes. 

What does this mean for human models? 

AI taking jobs?

Lalaland is not the only company that offers “AI modeling” services. At the beginning of March,  another Dutch firm, Deep Agency, debuted as a budget-friendly AI photo studio and AI modeling agency that can generate photos of AI models according to prompts provided by clients.

And Levi’s is also not the only clothing company that uses AI-generated models. Lalaland also counts Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger among its clients. They are all also still working with human models. 

In fact, both Levi’s and Lalaland have (separately) stated that they aren’t trying to replace human models or substitute AI models for other types of diversity. In a press release, Levi's said that "We do not see this pilot as a means to advance diversity or as a substitute for the real action that must be taken to deliver on our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, and it should not have been portrayed as such."

The company added that "...we want to clarify that this pilot is something we are on track to experiment with later this year in the hopes of strengthening the consumer experience ...Lalaland.ai’s technology, and AI more broadly, can potentially assist us by allowing us to publish more images of our products on a range of body types more quickly. That being said, we are not scaling back our plans for live photo shoots, the use of live models, or our commitment to working with diverse models."

In an interview for The Guardian, Lalaland’s founder Michael Musandu said that it’s more about reducing costs for the clothing companies, which not only have to hire models but also photographers, make-up artists, and hair stylists for their photoshoots. 

Levi’s, on the other hand, said that their hyper-realistic, AI-generated fashion models will “supplement” human models, helping the firm show off its clothes in other types of bodies, skin tones, and ages. 

Instead of assigning just one human model per product. AI-generated models could be used to present each line of clothing with a variety of different models who look more like their customers, making the shopping experience more “personal” and “inclusive.”

Is AI-driven inclusivity “real” inclusivity?

The fact that Levi’s would start putting their clothes on AI-generated models sparked a lot of controversy by itself. People are generally afraid of the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on work, and knowing that AI can already generate high-quality deep fakes (and that some companies are willing to use them) only adds to that fear.

But Levi Strauss & Co's reasons behind the decision of working with AI models is what intensified the backlash. While it is generally positive that Levi’s wants its models to reflect its customers, one question arose among the public: why don’t they just hire diverse models?

In spite of Lalaland’s CEO’s explanation of how the use of AI-generated models reduces costs for clothing brands, some social media users and bloggers pointed out that Levi’s could just hire professional human models of different ethnicities, ages, and body types if that’s what it is looking for.

Levi’s to 'supplement' human models with AI models
Female models of different ethnicities

Diverse models often have a harder time getting into the fashion industry and are still quite underrepresented, but they are not necessarily scarce, and Levi’s budget isn’t, either. In April 2023, Levi Strauss had a market capitalization of $7.19 billion dollars. So, from the general public’s perspective, there is no excuse.

In fact, the criticism toward Levi’s decision was nearly unanimous even on Twitter, where people disagree on a daily basis.

Phil Fersht, CEO and founder of HFS research, called Levi’s move an “artificial diversity.”

Film director Peter Ramsey, the first African American to direct a major animated movie in the U.S., commented: “Very efficient, Levi’s! Laziness, cheapness, and cynicism all in one stroke.”

Levi’s representatives could only continue to say that the company is already hiring diverse models and that this won’t stop due to its collaboration with Lalaland. They insisted that AI-generated models would only assist them by  “supplementing models and publishing images of our products on a range of body types more quickly, while we coordinate photoshoots with live models and finalize website assets.”

AI-generated influence

The use of AI-generated models in the fashion industry is not really a new debate. 

For example, virtual influencers have been around since at least 2016, when a startup called Brud created the AI-generated character Lil Miquela, a forever 19-year-old AI model who collaborated with multiple brands, including clothing firms such as Calvin Klein and Prada.

In fact, there are many virtual influencers now. In a survey conducted in March 2022, 58% of the 1,044+ American users surveyed reported following a virtual influencer on Instagram. 

Human influencers may also feel threatened by their virtual counterparts. After all, a virtual influencer is always young and beautiful. That is, of course, according to the beauty standards of their creators, which some feel are designed in an artificial way that humans cannot hope to emulate. 

In that sense, Levi’s utilization of AI-generated models sounds perhaps a bit less harmful.  

Then, in 2017, fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson created an AI-generated virtual influencer and model called Shudu Gram, who later appeared in Vogue and Cosmopolitan. 

Shudu particularly sparked controversy for being a black woman created by a white man. Some people and media described her as a virtual projection of a white man’s view of black women, and argued that it could be seen as a form of cultural appropriation and exploitation, especially as Wilson made money out of Shudu’s image.

While Levi’s wasn’t accused of something similar, there is an ongoing debate about what it would mean if a fashion company were to decide to photograph real white models while at the same time using AI-generated models to represent non-white models. 

In any case, both virtual influencers and AI models are likely to be a trend that is only just starting, and it remains to be seen how it will shape the future of fashion advertising and marketing.

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